Not surprisingly for somebody who has put his whole being into photographing the Australian landscape,
Mark Lang is horrified by the shallowness of so many depictions.
“There’s an awful lot of chocolate box rubbish around I’m afraid. I despair of the school of pink pictures. I think it’s such an insult to a landscape which is not pretty. A lot of it is very beautiful, but it’s not just pretty.
“I’d much prefer to look at the work of somebody like Peter Dombrovkis who put his life on the line to go out into the landscape with a Graflex and six sheets of film. He might come back from a two-week walk in the wilderness with four sheets of film exposed… because nothing else was good enough, the light wasn’t quite right. Peter was always committed to perfection and that’s why you always remember his pictures. There’s a whole lot of panoramic landscape photography shot around Australia, but I’m afraid it’s entirely forgettable… it hasn’t got any guts to it.”
By “guts’ he essentially means a spiritual quality; the capturing of elements beyond merely the obvious which is all the casual observer sees.
“To me, this is always the quality that I saw in the Australian landscape – far more than in the English landscape – in that it does have a spirit. There are no two ways about it. There are times when you feel the place is kind of talking… the rocks have got a presence. And, of course, a lot of Aboriginal belief is that everything, even inanimate objects, has got a spirit and I feel quite at home with that. I think this is what you’re looking for in the landscape when you’re looking for a picture sometimes… there’s a homage, a tension that goes between a tree and a rock or a water course. The elements within a landscape just seem to be in some sort of amazing dance… a beautiful dance…”
The pause is because Mark is suddenly overcome with emotion and he stares out at the valley in silence before wiping his eyes, the tears equally quickly turning to laughter.
“Sorry, I got quite carried away talking about that,” he says, regaining his composure, “but I think trying to get deeper and deeper into the spiritual side of landscape photography is a bit like chasing rainbows. You’ll never get there, but it doesn’t stop you trying anyway.”
The First Moves
Born into a well-established English family (traces of the plummy accent remain even now), Mark fell in love with photography when he was sent to boarding school.
“I was very fortunate because we had a darkroom society at school. I was at boarding school from nine to 18, up in the wilds of Lancashire, but I was useless scholastically – I was always looking out of the window daydreaming. The one thing that I was good at was photography. I thought ‘I can do this’, and the good thing was that we were allowed to spend a lot of time in the darkroom doing printing so I got lots of practice. I started doing photography around the school – I carried around a little Paxette which was my first 35mm camera – and so I became the school’s unofficial photojournalist.
Incidentally, for fans of Michael Palin’s comedy series Ripping Yarns, the terrifying boarding school that features in the episode called ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’ was filmed at Mark’s old school.
“When I left boarding school, my parents accepted that all I wanted to do was be a photographer so they sent me off to the Guildford Art College which was the place to go in those days.”
It was there that Mark met another young photography student, Graham McCarter, and the two became life-long friends. Indeed it was Graham who, a few years later, convinced Mark to follow him to Australia.
“I was fortunate to be in a year with some pretty amazing characters – ‘Haggis’ [McCarter] being one of them – and people were trying to do really extraordinary things. Haggis had a desire to do really true portraits and was prepared to take risks creatively, so I learned an awful lot from him for which I’m forever indebted. I was working in London in a studio just off Chancery Lane, photographing carpets and doing D&P work for a printing company. There were no jobs. There was 500 young photographers leaving art schools every year and there were 14 jobs available. So I was lucky to have what I had. Then Graham came back from Australia and told me about life there and I thought it sounded pretty good. He said, ‘Mate, it’s ten quid, and you can always come back after two years’. One day, I was a bit pissed and was walking down The Strand and there was Australia House so I thought ‘this is the moment’. I went in and said ‘I want to go to Australia, where do I sign?’. I think they thought I was an escaped prisoner or something, but six weeks later I was on the plane. I arrived in February 1969 – so it was sweltering hot – in Cavalry Twill trousers, Viyella shirt, a tweed jacket, brogue shoes and a Terylene tie.” Journey’s End
Initially Mark worked as a B&W printer – his extensive darkroom experience coming in handy – before starting freelancing from the studio of Andrew Warne. In 1984 he joined Graham McCarter, Anthony Browell, Grenville Turner and Philip Quirk in ‘The Church’, a commercial and advertising photography studio they set up in Surry Hills and which subsequently became hugely successful. But Mark’s real passions lay elsewhere and, in 1993, he left it all behind to start the journey that he’s still on and that, in the next couple of years, he hopes to finally complete.
“My main objective now is to finish the book which tells the story of this journey – seven years on the road and what happens to you when you walk out of that door. After that is a book of landscape photographs, but that’s not so important as it isn’t driven by the Aboriginal dynamic, but I would like to do it because that’s what I set to do in the first place. After that… well, I’m really not sure, but there’s still more to do here. How can you ever get to know this place? How can you ever get to think, ‘Ah, yes, I’ve done it’. They’ll always be one of those amazing days when something extraordinary happens and you’re fortunate enough to be there at the time.”
Pausing, he again stares out at the Megalong Valley as it’s bathed in the warm light of the setting sun, accentuating its undulating curves and the contrast between the forest and the cleared land.
“I mean,” he observes slowly, “look at this little number right here.”
Like a great many English immigrants, at some point Mark Lang was convinced that home was the country of his birth and so he decided to return.
“I was going home, but when I got home it wasn’t home anymore. I suddenly realised that home had actually become Australia… and I couldn’t wait to get back.”
Photographs by Mark Lang, copyright 2010. Portrait by Paul Burrows, copyright 2010.